Game Changers The Folklore Issue

Ahmed Al-Refaie: Celebrating Arab culture through art

This Kuwaiti digital artist's work represents the culture of the Gulf and wider Arab world.


By Sharifah Alhinai

This article is part of the Young Guardians of Our Folklore Series.

Ahmed Al-Refaie studied English Literature in university, but after graduating he pursued the passion that he first discovered when he was only 10-years old: art. After a series of trials and failures over the years, he eventually found his calling in digital illustration and graphic design. Today, the 34-year-old Kuwaiti (who is more popularly known as Owaikeo) is one of the Gulf region’s leading professional digital illustrators and graphic designers who is best-known for his creative and fresh representation of Gulf and wider Arab culture in his illustrations. He has collaborated with companies such as Snap Chat, and given talks at Apple, Saudi Culture Week and more.

Amongst his artworks are the Villains from Middle Eastern Folklore Series and the Traditional Professions from the Arab World Series. In the former, he depicts evil characters from famous tales in the regional folklore, such as those of Umm al-Saaf Wal Leef, Bu Deryah and al-Tantal. In the latter, he sheds a light on occupations that have long existed in the Arabian region, such as being a herbalist or a seamstress, for viewers to appreciate them.

I speak with Ahmed about what inspires his noteworthy work, what folklore means to him and how he documents and depicts it in his art. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspires your illustrations?

Ahmed Al- Refaie: I have a common theme in my work, which is that I want to capture the Gulf and Arab region as I feel there is little to no representation of it in the digital art form. Such dedication has made me learn so much about different cultures and traditions. I find inspiration in events, traditions, things that happen to me and even the little things, but then I exaggerate them. I cover all kinds of topics, but I always have a message in all my work.

From the top left: Umm al-Saaf Wal Leef, Bu Deryah and al-Tantal as imagined by Ahmed Al-Refaie. Illustrations: Ahmed Al-Refaie.

Your illustrations frequently depict Gulf and wider Arab culture. Tell us more about the reason behind that.

Ahmed Al- Refaie: Prior to 2016, I was drawing nothing and everything. I felt that I had no common goal or identity. That was the case as I drew fan art, then characters inspired by the West like cowboys, or even depictions of aliens. I grew tired and started to look for something new, something even though I am Kuwaiti, I had felt distant towards, and that was our culture. We grew up watching dubbed Japanese cartoons and studying an English curriculum that we missed what was in front of us.

Our theme for this issue is folklore. You have depicted Khaleeji and Arab folklore in your illustrations , such as through the Villains from Middle Eastern Folklore Series and the Traditional Professions from the Arab World Series. What inspired these and what does Arab folklore mean to you?

Ahmed Al- Refaie: Folklore is interesting to me as it is rooted in history but it is clearly something made up. With the stories of the past, and these villains in the case of my series, I felt the need to learn more about their origins and how they came to be. Although they are villains, their stories are genius. Storytelling is interesting but I was interested in the past, and I wanted to put a “face” to these tales. This mindset is what inspires me to dig into the past and learn more as our history is more than just camels and tents. Furthermore, Arabic folklore is a great source of inspiration when creating characters. I can be inspired by the theme, setting and more.

From his Traditional Professions from the Arab World Series is The Herbalist by Ahmed Al-Refaie. Ilustration: Ahmed Al-Refaie.

What are some of your favorite stories from our folklore? How have they shaped you ?

Ahmed Al- Refaie: Folklore stories are made for a particular goal, and in the case of my series of villains, they were created to scare people. For example, parents wanted to prevent their children from going out at certain times. But there are also tales that were sparked for other unknown reasons like Bu Deryah (or Bu al-bahar), who is perhaps my favorite as he/it is deeply rooted in our culture. The story goes that a creature (Bu Deryah ) pretends to drown near a pearl diving ship in order to catch his prey. What I find interesting is that the story is rooted in our culture, as it combines the sea and previous profession of pearl diving. My depiction of the creature is somewhat funny as I imagined him to be a man with fish-like features. To me, he’s been in the sea for so long that he has become a part of it!

Ahmed Al-Refaie celebrates and represents Gulf and wider Arab culture through his work. Illustrations: Ahmed Al-Refaie.

Your illustrations both document and reinvent. For example, you document traditional professions through your series and you reinvent the way villains are depicted. How important is documentation and reinvention through art to you?

Ahmed Al- Refaie: This is essential to what I do: I like to reinvent by putting my own stamp on things. This is mainly why I stay away from fan art and drawing real people; I do not want to just recreate, I want to take things further and appreciate art for the art first and foremost. I do not want the main subject, or the recreation of the illustration to be at the center stage. This also goes back to my main goal of making these Arabic topics modernized and approachable to more generations as Arabic themes are always confined to Ramadan.

To find out more about Ahmed Al-Refaie visit his page on Instagram.

Sharifah Alhinai is the co-founder and managing storyteller of Sekka.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.